For the 93rd episode of the Journalism History podcast, hosted by Teri Finneman, Kathy Roberts Forde discusses her co-edited book, Journalism and Jim Crow: White Supremacy and the Black Struggle for a New America.
Kathy Roberts Forde: Many of the white-based papers of the South who are mouthpieces for New South ideology are also very active in lynchings.
Teri Finneman: Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told.
I’m Teri Finneman, and I research media coverage of women in politics.
Nick Hirshon: And I’m Nick Hirshon, and I research the history of New York sports.
Ken Ward: And I’m Ken Ward, and I research the journalism history of the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains.
Teri Finneman: And together, we are professional media historians guiding you through our own drafts of history. Transcripts of the show are available at journalism-history.org/podcast. This episode is sponsored by Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History.
“For generations after the Civil War, the white Southern press was committed to constructing an anti-democratic world of white supremacy with little regard for Black civil, social, political, or even human rights.” This excerpt comes from the new book Journalism and Jim Crow: White Supremacy and the Black Struggle for a New America, which is sure to be a frontrunner for a number of book awards. The book examines the role that journalism played in creating and maintaining Jim Crow oppression that included support for lynching, segregation, forced labor, voter suppression, and a racist criminal justice system.
On today’s show we have one of the book’s editors, Kathy Roberts Forde, of the University of Massachusetts Amherst with us. Kathy, welcome to the show. I know you’ve been working on this book for quite a while now, long before the murder of George Floyd and the social justice protests in 2020. So what prompted you to write this book?
Kathy Roberts Forde: Well, it all began, gosh, it must be – it was a number of years ago now. I suppose it began in the spring of 2015. I was teaching this class that I developed with Sid Bedingfield at the University of South Carolina when we were both on the faculty there. It’s a class called Black Freedom Struggle in the Press. And was teaching this class here at Amherst, at UMass Amherst, where I’m on the faculty, and I was teaching students about convict labor in the South, and after, you know, in the late 19th century.
And one of my students was so outraged that he had never been taught that history even though he had been — he was quite well-versed in American history, quite well-versed in a version of American history that centered the Black experience, he did not know about convict labor. And so he asked if we could do an independent study.
I said yes, as long as we found a research project that we could do together and it had to involve the press because I’m a journalist and historian. And so we started reading everything we could get our hands on about convict labor and looking for some kind of press angle. And what we discovered after these several months of reading was this really interesting case in Florida where a Standard Oil tycoon, he was Henry Rockefeller’s partner by the name of Henry Flagler, bought control of newspapers, white newspapers, in Florida in order to control public information and public discourse about his doings in the state and what he was up to in the state building railroads and resorts.
And he basically built a terrorist empire along that eastern shore of Florida, and in doing that, some of what he wanted to control information about was his use of debt peonage.
That is immigrants from northern Europe to build his extension across the ocean to the Florida Keys, the railroad extension. And, and he used convict labor as well. But there was a Justice Department investigation of his peonage practices, his labor practices, and he was able to control public knowledge and discourse about this in Florida in any case by his control of the Florida press.
He was not able to control public discourse in muckraking magazine articles that were published in the country and newspaper, and external newspaper coverage of the Justice Department’s investigation into his, into his organization. But, you know, he won the day at the end because he was able to at the end, kind of quash this…
…this story in Florida and rehabilitate his name across history even up to the present moment. So that’s where the project began. It began by working with another undergraduate student. We wrote the story. We researched the story for a couple of years. And as I – the more we researched it, the more I came to see there’s – this stuff is happening, things like this are happening all over the South from kind of the end of reconstruction all the way up through at least the 1920s and 1930s.
And so I asked Sid Bedingfield if he would join me to edit a book on this project on the subject of the role of white newspaper editors and publishers in building white supremacy in the South, and we put the book together from there.
Teri Finneman: Before we get into the depth of it, I think you make a really interesting point early on in the book that I think is important to address.
You note the concern about presentism, or applying what we know today versus presenting information within the context of the particular time being studied in history itself. Along with that, some people like to complain about revisionist history, not understanding that there are many reasons why the framing of history changes. But I wanted to give you a chance to first discuss how you address this as historians.
Kathy Roberts Forde: Yeah. So let me first talk a little bit about the main argument of the book, and then explain [laughter] kind of why, you know, why we do take on this, you know, potential criticism that we’re being presentists in our project and –. Um, so the book makes what we think is a fairly new argument, which is that from the end of reconstruction and the beginning – or I guess toward the end of reconstruction all the way up through it least the 1930s…
…there were many white newspaper publishers and editors in urban areas across the South who were political actors. They may not have held political office, but they played central roles in building the political systems, the economic systems, and the social orders of their communities, of their states. And in doing so, they worked to build white supremacy.
And, you know, I think journalists and historians have for quite a while been working on uncovering and discussing kind of the role in which white newspapers, particularly in the South, use their storytelling capabilities, the narratives, right, to put the soft power at their papers in service of white supremacy and racism.
But I don’t think we have understood particularly well until very recently, and we’re making the argument in this book that these newspapers, many of these newspapers and their leaders were straight-up political actors. And they used the hard power of the institutions and worked hand-in-glove with political officials, public officials, and business leaders to self-consciously and actively build white supremacist political economies.
That’s a very different kind of argument and a very different kind of understanding of the role of newspapers during a really critical moment in American history, which is kind of the end of that really extraordinary experiment in multiracial or at least biracial government and democracy that was reconstruction in the South after the Civil War.
So that’s our argument, and we’ve got lots of evidence to back it up. But I think worried a little bit that folks might think we take on, for example, I write a history of Henry W. Grady. He was the managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution during the 1880s, in which I discussed the ways in which he was a significant architect, if not a key architect, of white supremacy in the New South. And that runs quite counter to most historical, certainly popular historical, understandings of Henry W. Grady.
And so kind of in order to, in order to just, you know, imagining folks who might think we’re applying present day values to an understanding of Grady, Sid and I make the argument and introduction that we’re not – we don’t think we’re being presentists.
And in fact, if you look at what Black journalists of the day had to say about Grady, they say basically what we’re saying in this book. And so Black journalists of his era were saying much of what we’re saying in Journalism and Jim Crow about Grady and about other white urban news leaders. Also, there were white writers and intellectuals and thought leaders of the day who said much the same as the Black journalists of the day, much the same as what we’re saying now, for example, George Washington Cable and Albion Tourgée.
So even though so many folks, for example, think of Grady as a racial moderate, I don’t. I don’t think he was a moderate. I think he may – I mean if a moderate is a straight-up white supremacist. Okay.
But I think that his legacy has not been properly understood as a journalist and as someone who was a political actor.
Teri Finneman: Jim Crow laws enforcing anti-Black racism in everything from schools to transportation, to voting, to swimming pools, to other public places officially existed from the 1870s all the way up to 1965. We often hear in journalism history that the notion of objectivity in journalism took hold in the early-1900s. So there’s this concept that the mainstream press was, you know, so to speak, objective for a large portion of this Jim Crow time period, whereas the Black press get the label of being an advocacy press. So how does your book challenge this journalism history of objectivity and advocacy?
Kathy Roberts Forde: That is such a good question. And I think certainly even in the late-19th century, certainly in the 1880s when Henry Grady was working the Atlanta Constitution…
…and the 1890s when he wrote about the role of Josephus Daniels of the Raleigh News & Observer, and the Democratic Party’s white supremacists planned to steal the 1898 election and to drive a wedge between white and Black folks of North Carolina who are working together on a populist movements. Um, and actually the Democratic Party in North Carolina at that time planned a campaign of violence in order to take control of the vote, and the election, and eventually planned coup d’état in Wilmington, which was a Black majority city and was a place of – they understood as a place where Black political power was growing in the state. And, so, you know, at that – in covering those events or actually being actively involved in these events…
…the white press was often involved in disinformation campaigns. So even though during that same time period, the 1880s-1890s, there had – already was emerging, and, and if you read the journalism trade publications of the times, all kinds of the key ideas that later in the early-20th century converge to become the objective method of journalism I think most well-articulated by Walter Lippmann, most famously articulated by Walter Lippmann.
So you had all these other these norms and journalistic practices in the 1880s and 1890s that later became objectivity. And this was a reliance on facts, a reliance on an obeisanceto accuracy, to some degree of independence and neutrality.
So already there was these kinds of values attached to journalism that we see not being practiced or being — if they were practiced, they were ignored in many instances in the Southern, in the white Southern press as these news leaders were working to build political economies and social orders that serve white interests and Democratic Party interests.
So this, this idea that during this time period or this, what we often think of objectivity versus advocacy in press history is, it’s not quite accurate. I don’t think it’s always an accurate way to understand what was happening. If you’re looking, if you can actually see that white press in the South in many, many instances across a long period of time was involved in disinformation campaigns…
…was involved in cover-ups, was involved in a kind of journalism that was entirely tied to a notion of racial past, and operated with a commitment to racial past. I think it raises some serious, serious questions not only in the South, but makes us ask questions about in other parts of the country, about when and where journalism was serving profoundly anti-democratic values. And we see that in our own moment. We see that in our own day. And so I think because we see certain news media outlets these days serving anti-democratic goals and values…
I think that we – it allows us to, to think critically about maybe some of what the stories we’ve been telling in journalism history are more complicated than we might know.
Teri Finneman: So you discussed certain Southern newspaper editors who particularly played significant roles in the continuation of white supremacy. You’ve mentioned Henry Grady in this conversation today, as well as in the book, and his role in crafting white supremacy in Georgia and the South, and that has been really poorly understood. Is there anything else that you wanted to mention about Grady?
Kathy Roberts Forde: Yes. I think Grady is a really interesting thing here. Um, in the 1880s, he becomes managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution in 1880, and he becomes managing editor while he’s in New York City. He gets news while he’s in New York City, he’s traveled there by train with Victor Newcomb of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad.
And Victor Newcomb is the vice president at the time of that very powerful railroad, which is making incursions into the South. Grady wants that Louisville & Nashville to come to Atlanta to help make the city of Atlanta the gateway of the South, which this points to Grady’s, one of his – what he’s well-remembered for, and for good reason. It’s a great builder of the city and booster for the city of Atlanta. And that’s very, very true of Grady.
He did a great deal to build Atlanta. He helped found Georgia Tech. He brought — he was a big proponent of baseball. He did a lot to build and protect Atlanta, and to turn it into, you know, a really important city, not only in Georgia, but the South. But also in 1880 when he becomes managing editor of the Atlanta Constitution…
…he does so in New York City with the help of a loan from Victor Newcomb of the Louisville & Nashville or actually Newcomb doesn’t give him the loan, he introduces him to the financier Cyrus Field, who loans Grady $20,000. Then Newcomb helps Grady. He advises him in stock speculation, and Grady very quickly is able to repay Cyrus W. Field for that $20,000 it took him to buy his quarter interest in Atlanta Constitution, and thus become a managing editor in return for these favors.
Grady, not only he learns the lessons of quid pro quo, really he writes, of course glowingly, about the Louisville & Nashville, and the Atlanta Constitution. And then he also does favors for Cyrus Field, whose brother was a, at the time, was an associate justice in the Supreme Court…
…is running for the Democratic nomination for president. And so Grady takes on a campaign in this powerful Southern newspaper that he is now managing editor of to boost Cyrus’s Field’s brother. And, and then in very, very short order, like within the same month that Grady becomes managing editor in this deal, he then goes on to broker this backstage political deal among three of the men of his famed Atlanta Ring, who kind of shifted offices between U.S. Senate seats and the governor’s seat in Georgia.
Um, and essentially one of them, all three of whom are owners or are part owners in the convict lease in Georgia. All, so all three of them are involved in this back deal, this back deal shifting where…
…one of the U.S. senators, John Gordon, steps down and Joe Brown, the governor installs Joe Brown in his place, and it involves the Louisville & Nashville Railroad and kinds of corrupt back deals. And, and Grady is the mastermind of it all. And the, you know, historians didn’t understand this until about 100 years later when historians working in the archive found secret codes [laughter] in which Grady had been orchestrating this whole — this whole deal.
Meanwhile in the Atlanta Constitution, he is – where there’s been an uproar publicly in which the people of Georgia are suspecting that there has been chicanery, and, and all of this in the shifting of office Grady is denying it and writing different stories in the Atlanta Constitution. And he covered it and he orchestrated a cover-up. So these are, I mean that’s just a little bit.
That’s just how I think that one little story about who Grady began his tenure at the Atlanta Constitution as managing editor anyway is revealing of who he was as a journalist and editor of the newspaper. And then in – you know, within – that’s 1880, and 1886, he becomes the – he becomes nationally famous as the spokesperson for the New South. Um, a lot of historians have celebrated and, and popular histories have celebrated his commitment to the New South ideology of industrializing the South, attracting Northern investment in the South.
But there was another part of that South ideology as well. So it wasn’t only about reconciling the sections, the North and the South, you know, several decades after the Civil War, but it was also very much about disenfranchising Black Americans.
It was very much about promoting the idea of separate but equal even though he had no real intention of – or commitment to equality. Uh, it was also about claiming, about building white supremacist systems in the state of Georgia and across, and across the South. And so, you know, – I find it quite interesting that Grady is often talked about even still as, you know, the great reconciler of North and South, whereas he was also the great excluder. He was the great excluder of Black Southerners from that project of democracy in the American South.
Teri Finneman: So your book also discusses some of the courageous Black journalists and newspapers that operated in the South during the Jim Crow. Tell us about some of them.
Kathy Roberts Forde: Well, I’m gonna talk a little bit about Grady, and then talk about the Black journalists who really pointed their finger directly at Grady.
So in his newspaper coverage, in Atlanta Constitution’s coverage of lynching, Grady himself, wrote some articles about lynchings in which he has this — really he writes headlines and articles about lynchings of Black men that are just demeaning. They rhyme. They’re, they’re meant to be humorous, and, in fact, one of his former professors at the University of Georgia writes him a letter. It’s in Grady’s personal papers at Emory University.
This professor writes him a letter and says, you know, this is beneath you, this kind of coverage, the way you’re treating human life in your newspaper is, is immoral. Um, and then, of course, the Atlanta Constitution’s lynching practices that Grady helps develop during the 1880s…
… by the time we get to the early-20th century and 19 – or the late-19th century, I believe it’s in the late 1890s with the lynching of Sam Hose, the Atlanta Constitution is actually participating in fomenting one the most brutal lynchings that we have and there were so many brutal ones. Um, it was a major spectacle lynching the Atlanta Constitution fomented, and the lynching across several weeks as posses were, were pursuing this unfortunate person. Um, and then in even advertised special trains to the spectacle lynching in the pages of the paper. Um, so Grady wasn’t alive at that time. He died in 1889 unexpectedly at the early age of 39.
But his – if he helped put in place some of these practices that then became what they became later in the early, in the late-19th century and then in the early-20th century practices of just fomenting racial violence that were part of the 1906 Atlanta race riots that the Atlanta Constitution and the Atlanta – and other Atlanta newspapers were deeply implicated in.
Grady also was one of the great defenders of the convict lease system in Georgia and in Atlanta. And his – even though his best friend, Robert Austin, died in this really bizarre absolutely – Robert Austin was the former newspaper partner of Grady’s in Rome, at a newspaper in Rome, even though Robert Austin was killed in this very bizarre incident at the statehouse in Georgia of all things…
…um, under the governor that – Alfred Colquitt that Grady helped reelect, win reelection, and Robert Austin — he had revealed all kinds of horrors of the convict leasing system. Henry Grady, in the pages of the Atlanta Constitution during his entire tenure as managing editor of the newspaper, he defended convict leasing. He wrote about it. He defended it over and over again.
And it stands to good reason why he did it because the members of the Atlanta Ring — John Gordon, Alfred Colquitt, Joe Brown, who were, you know, trading seats in the U.S. Senate and then the governor’s office, every single one of them benefited from convict labor and the convict lease, especially Joe Brown who owed Dade Coal Co., and was one of the most notorious abusers of the convict lease system in his many, many coal mines
…and made huge amounts of money. Um, at the time even it was millions of dollars. And so his political ring had deep financial ties to the convict lease system, and Grady had a reason to protect it on their behalf.
Teri Finneman: So how did the Black press work to try to counter all of this?
Kathy Roberts Forde: That is your question originally, and let me answer that one. I got so involved in talking about what Grady was up to. You know, so the Black press saw clearly what Grady was doing and, and, and how Grady’s new self-ideology was being used to put obstacles in the way of Black Southerners who were trying to hang on to the political gains they had made during Reconstruction and economic gains.
And to continue having some degree of freedom and opportunity both in terms of education, in terms of social life, and in terms of politics and financial opportunities. So T. Thomas Fortune, for example, he was a really militant Black newspaper editor and leader in New York City. He owns the New York Age, the New York Freeman, and the New York Globe.
He covered Grady’s New South ideology and what Grady was up to quite well. And in fact, wrote a good bit about Grady’s protection of the convict lease and held him responsible for that and also for his New South speeches in which he upheld white supremacy and actively lobbies for the disenfranchisement of Black men in the South, Black voters.
And so T. Thomas Fortune, again and again, he saw Grady as an enemy of Black aspiration and Black Southerners and Black Americans, and the democratic project. And he called them out repeatedly. Ida B. Wells in her lynching coverage, she called out Grady and drew a direct line between Henry Grady’s New South ideology and lynching practices.
And in fact in so much of her lynching covered, she actually pulls — she points out that the white press — many of the white newspapers of the South who are also very active in lynchings. And so you have journalists like Ida B. Wells and T. Thomas Fortune taking on Grady directly in the South ideology.
You had journalists in the South itself who were actively taking on, if not Grady, other – so in other white supremacists and, and the Democratic Party stratagems and business interests. So in North Carolina, you had Alexander Manley, who was the editor/publisher of the Daily Record in Wilmington, North Carolina, who stood up to the Democratic Party’s efforts to steal the election of 1898, and in fact challenged what was their – the big lie that they told, which was that white – or that Black men in North Carolina were sexually assaulting white women rampantly.
And this, of course, was a big lie that they – the Democratic Party used. It’s even in their handbook, in their party campaign handbook of 1898 to drive a wedge between white populists and Black Republicans…
…who had joined forces in the fusionist movement in North Carolina to gain political power in the governor’s office in North Carolina and in the state legislature. So you actually have this movement where white and Black North Carolinians have understood that they have shared interests against the white elite, the Democratic elite in North Carolina. Um, that they have these shared economic interests.
And if they join political forces, they can improve education. They can improve economic opportunities for the bulk of North Carolinians, but the Democratic Party uses, you know, drives a wedge using this, this old canard, this whole big lie that was popular across so many decades of the white supremacist South that to justify this idea that Black men…
…this big lie that Black men are sexually assaulting white women wantingly, and they use this, they use this big lie. And Alexander Manley exposes the lie for what it is in his — in his newspaper and says, “Well, in fact, all you have to do is look around the South to see that white men have often in fact been – have often sexually-assaulted Black women.” And he himself was the product of such a union, you know, down in his heritage. I shouldn’t say the term “union.” He, himself, was the product of such a thing.
And so, you know, he was threatened and he was — he was exiled from –
…and his press was burnt down when the white supremacists came to Wilmington and took over the city government and killed we don’t know how many Black people in the city of Wilmington. And many, many more Black people in Wilmington left forever. Uh, because it, it was – the writing was on the wall that the white supremacists had taken their city.
Teri Finneman: So I think this is a really critical line in the book’s foreword: “Popular media in the Southern states played a profound role in crafting white supremacy and its many justifications among whites as everyday “commonsense.” You also know that, of course, this influence went beyond the South. So what do you want the journalism industry, the newspaper industry today, to understand about its role in racism?
Kathy Roberts Forde: Well, I think I want the — I want journalists today in the news industry today, and every important institutions of the news today to look critically at the past, to understand that journalism is not naturally or intrinsically democratic. That it has to be made to serve democratic ends. That if we look at the history that we tell in journalism and Jim Crow, it’s very clear that not only were very powerful white news institutions and leaders in the South, and elsewhere frankly, using their news institutions to build white supremacy, to support notions of racial caste, to build a political and social system that was anything but democratic.
Um, but they were … they were institutions who are not serving the public good. They were not serving the public values of – and civil ideals of democracy. And so I think it’s just really critical for news institutions to understand this history, to understand that journalism has often served racist ends, but also anti-democratic ends.
Teri Finneman: So our final question of the show that we ask all of our guests is why does journalism history matter?
Kathy Roberts Forde: Teri, I love that you all ask that question. Um, I think for me, and I think it matters for tons of reasons, [laughter] but here’s just one reason it matters. Um, and it matters because journalism is – it’s the way by which most of us learn about the world around us.
It’s the way most of us learn about public affairs, the way we learn about culture. It’s the way we learn about public policy and foreign affairs. It’s the way by which we know the world. And so if that’s true, then journalism is a force in all of our lives. And it has been in our present lives and it was in the past. And if we’re going to understand our present moment, we also need to look to the past. We need to understand in the past how journalism operated soft power but also how journalism, the industry also operated hard power, exercised hard power especially in the realm of politics and in the realm of the economy.
And journalism itself is just wrapped up — it’s shot through how democracy operates. And so we like to think of journalism as the guardrails of democracy. That’s a – it’s a wonderful vision, and I think in many instances journalism has been the guardrail of our democracy. I see in our moment, I’ve seen so much brilliant, important, critical journalism that has served the values of democracy.
I also see that in the past. But also in the past I’ve seen a great many moments, and not just moments, but institutions and structures, huge episodes [laughter] of the past across large sections of the country. I’m thinking right now of the American South, the story we tell in Journalism and Jim Crow where you had a very powerful journalism, white journalism, newspaper journalism…
…that was anti-Black and anti-democratic. And it served the interests of building a nearly totalitarian regime in the South. A kind of authoritarian power structure in the South of one party: white Democratic Party South. The Democratic Party then, of course, was not the same as the Democratic Party today. Um, and so we need to understand that history. We need to understand that journalism is not inherently democratic that we have to work really hard to make it democratic.
That objective, just calling journalism “objective,” just saying that journalism is based on facts, and in fact having a journalism based on facts, we need to recognize that those facts are always interpreted. And we need to understand, too, that sometimes journalism, or what we call –
…we think of journalism may well be serving goals that we don’t think of as proper goals for journalism. And so how do we — how do we reconcile, how do we build a journalism that is worthy of the name, or how do we make sure that in our public sphere and in our politics, we have the kind of journalism that serves democratic values? I think that that’s really, really important. And when I’m writing journalism history these days, that’s always at the front of my mind. I’m always thinking what would it look like?
How can we remake journalism, talk about journalism, and develop values for journalism that are oriented toward democracy, towards serving democracy? What would that look like? And I certainly don’t have the answers to that, but that’s a conversation I want to have with anyone who wants to have it, my students but also other historians, and certainly members of the public and members of news industry today.
Teri Finneman: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today, and we look forward to having your book out right in time for the holidays.
Kathy Roberts Forde: Thanks so much, Teri. I really enjoyed talking with you.
Teri Finneman: Thanks for tuning in, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. You can also follow us on Twitter @JHistoryJournal. Until next time, I’m your host Teri Finneman signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow: “Good night and good luck.”